Just Get It Over With

The psychology of doing unpleasant tasks sooner, which really is better

There’s a classic experiment on delayed gratification, in which kids who chose to wait and eat two marshmallows later, rather than eating a single marshmallow right away, tended to achieve more later in life. Discipline in the face of these sticky sugar blobs seemed to indicate some sort of inner strength needed to navigate this thorny world that rapid marshmallow-eaters just did not possess.

But what if those kids hated marshmallows? Would they be lauded for their self-control then? What if the marshmallow was not a marshmallow, but physical pain? Good things come to those who wait, but sometimes, bad things come too.

When it comes to future bad things—taxes, confrontations, pelvic exams—you can either put them off or get them over with. And studies have shown that people prefer to get it over with.

In a recent study published in PLOS Computational Biology, researchers basically did the marshmallow experiment, but with pain. Do you want your electrical shock now or later? For the most part, people chose to take the shocks sooner, even if they had to take more shocks to avoid the delay.

Looking at decision-making at a basic level, it makes sense that people would seek out rewards and avoid punishments, and research shows that they do. But of course, there are more factors at play in most decisions we make in real-world settings. Sometimes, as in this study, a punishment is unavoidable; it’s just a matter of when.

The factor at play here, as anyone who has ever layed awake at night anticipating all of their own imminent metaphysical electric shocks knows, is dread. The researchers here describe what they call “exponential dread”—dread that increases exponentially as the thing you’re dreading draws nearer. Participants were also more averse to pain that came farther in the future, though the dread increased by smaller increments as the wait grew longer. So by choosing to take the pain now, participants were avoiding a punishment: the pain of the dread itself.

The anticipation of something unpleasant can be processed a lot like pain by the body. A 2012 study found that people with high levels of math anxiety, when faced with a looming math problem, had increased activity in regions of their brains associated with threat detection and “visceral pain.” 

In 2006, researchers did a very similar electric shock study, while scanning the brains of the participants. They had a choice between a higher voltage sooner, and a lower voltage later (90 percent in 3 seconds or 60 percent in 27 seconds). They divided participants into “extreme dreaders” and “mild dreaders,” and found that, based on differences in brain activity between the two, dread that drove their decision-making came from, in large part, the attention the person was paying to the part of their body that was getting shocked (in this case, a foot).

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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